Career

Your boss is more into the job than you are

April 26, 2013 at 2:08 PM ET

Employee engagement is recovering since the end of the recession, new research from Gallup shows, but the improvement is uneven: Those higher up the corporate ladder are experiencing much greater gains than the people they supervise.

Engagement rose in eight out of nine sectors measured, with “managers, executives and officials” recording the most dramatic increase: 10 percentage points between 2009 and 2012.

By contrast, workers in manufacturing and sales — the next two highest improvers — had increases of six and five percentage points, respectively. People in other fields including transportation, installation and repair, clerical and office, professional, and construction and mining jobs were all slightly more engaged than they were in 2009.

“It is possible that, amid tough economic times, managers and executives are increasingly motivated to drive a sense of purpose in their organizations,“ Gallup said. The research organization also suggested that executives might be more optimistic about the recovering economy or might experience a greater sense of control than their underlings.

This last possibility is likely, according to Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “I suspect that they feel empowered in the current situation,” he said via email. “While managers might be relatively secure in their jobs, most other workers are not.”

This hunch appears to be borne out by the one outlier in Gallup’s survey: service jobs, where a complete reversal has taken place. Three years ago, these employees were the most engaged; today, this is the only sector where engagement fell.

“During the recession people were happy just to have a job,” said Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics. “Now, those that are most marketable are feeling more confident in their options.”

A report last year from the National Employment Law Project found that employment gains in the years following the recession have disproportionately been in lower-paying fields, many of them in the service industry.

“Lower-wage occupations constituted 21 percent of recession losses, but 58 percent of recovery growth,” the group said. Between 2010 and 2012, 1.7 million jobs — 43 percent of net employment growth — came in the food services, retail, and employment services sectors.

With low pay, minimal benefits and erratic hours, these aren’t what most Americans would consider great jobs, and even an increase of 1.7 million leaves a significant overflow of jobseekers.

Employers can afford to be choosy, and replacing departing workers isn’t a challenge in these lower-skilled industries. Employees know this, and that uncertainty is a contributor to their falling engagement, Lister said. “There’s a lot of fear remaining.”

“It is much easier to be engaged in a job that you expect to hold for the foreseeable future (than) a job that you could lose at any time,” Baker said.

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